February 16th, 2012
01:36 PM ET

Explainer: How and why do Mormons baptize the dead?

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

The recent disclosure that Mormons baptized the dead parents of Jewish Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal by proxy has sparked outrage in the Jewish world. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has apologized for the baptism, which it says resulted from the actions of a church member acting in violation of church policy. The LDS church vowed to stop baptizing Jewish Holocaust victims in 1995.

But proxy baptism for the dead is a proud Mormon tradition. Here are the basics about how it works and why Mormons do it.

Why do Mormons practice proxy baptism for the dead?

For Mormons, baptizing the dead solves a big theological problem: How do billions of people who never had the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ – including those who lived before Jesus walked the earth – receive salvation? By baptizing the dead, a practice known as posthumous proxy baptism, Mormons believe they are giving every person who ever lived the chance at everlasting life. That includes Muslims, Hindus, atheists, pagans, whoever.

“Mormons believe that there is a place the dead go where they are in ‘spirit prison’ and where they have the chance to accept the Christian baptism,” says Richard Bushman, a Mormon scholar at Columbia University. “But it’s a duty to actually perform Christian ordinance of baptism, so Mormons seek out every last person who ever lived and baptize them.”

Many Mormons are proud of the fact that they attempt to make their faith universal through baptizing the dead. “Historically, Christians have been exclusive,” says Terryl Givens, an expert on Mormonism at the University of Richmond. “Catholics have taught that only Catholics are saved, and evangelicals say only if you confess according to their tradition. Mormons say, ‘No, salvation is open to all people.’”

“In that sense Mormonism is the most nonexclusive religion in the Christian world,” Givens says.

So are all those who are baptized after death considered Mormon?

No. Mormons believe that baptism provides the deceased with the opportunity to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but not the obligation. They don't know if the dead actually accept Jesus. “This is about putting names on the guest list,” says Givens. “They might not go the party, but they are given the chance.’

How does the church decide who is baptized?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages its members to baptize the dead in their families going back at least four generations.

The church also has teams at headquarters in Salt Lake City and that travel around the world to identify as many people as possible to baptize, whether or not they’re in the lineage of present-day Mormons. “The church is constantly going through parish records, wills, deeds and every other genealogical source so they can extract names and put these people through the temple process,” says Bushman.

The LDS says it does not know how many deceased have been baptized. Experts say the number is in the millions.

There is no way for a person to prevent himself or herself from being baptized by the LDS church after death.

After Jews complained about baptisms of Jewish Holocaust victims, saying such baptisms deny the Jewish identity of those who died because of their faith, the LDS church worked with Jewish groups to stop the practice. But the system of preventing the baptism of Holocaust victims, initiated in 1995, has not been foolproof, as was shown this week with the disclosure about Wiesenthal’s parents.

What are Mormon baptism ceremonies like?

Baptisms for the dead happen inside Mormon temples. Members of the LDS church volunteer to undergo full immersion baptism while the names of the dead are read. An LDS member might participate in 10 or so posthumous proxy baptisms at a time. Young Mormons especially are encouraged to participate, as a way to participate in temple life.

How old is the practice of baptizing the dead?

Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, introduced baptism for the dead in the 1840s. Mormons cite Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as precedent to the practice. “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead not rise at all?” reads Corinthians 15:29. “Why are they then baptized for the dead?”

For Mormons, baptizing the dead is not seen as a new Mormon tradition but as a practice that ancient Christians practiced and that the LDS Church has reintroduced.

What other questions do you have about the practice? Let us know in the comments below.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Judaism • Mormonism

soundoff (2,301 Responses)
  1. dmf

    It's a form of religious marketing of sorts. They can then claim that there are "all these Mormons" and that their history extends far beyond what it actually does. Not too dissimilar from the Catholic Church who bans birth control so that the universe of Catholics can expand and grow exponentially.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  2. StMike

    Because they don't know any better!!!!!

    February 17, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  3. juan velarde

    This article is factually untrue about Catholics. Catholicism does not teach that only Catholics will be saved. As a matter of fact it does not comment on it at all. This is for God to decide and only God.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  4. Victor

    Essentially, they believe they found a mistake Jesus made, and it's up to them to fix it.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • C from Iowa

      Hi Victor,

      What mistake would that be? Upon reading this article, the Mormons appear to believe that everyone, even the dead, need to have a chance to accept or reject Jesus. I find it pretty cool that they wouldn't write off someone simply because they were born somewhere and never heard the gospel.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
      • Victor

        If an individual, regardless of place or time of birth, required baptism by the CoJCoLDS, or any other group, that implies that Jesus' death alone is insufficient to save all the world, would it not?

        February 22, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  5. Jay

    Very well written article that accurately depicts the Mormon practice and belief of baptizing for the dead. Just one clarification. The scripture cited at the end from Corinthians, when read out of context, sounds like the apostle Paul is asking why it is necessary to baptize for the dead. He did indeed ask the people, "Why are you baptizing the dead?" He asked them that question, however, to make a point. He was talking to a people who struggled with the belief of resurrection (the process that Christians believe Jesus made possible for the dead to come back to life immortally through the atonement.) To help them understand this doctrine, he asks them rhetorically why they are baptizing the dead if they don`t even believe that the dead will rise again. This ordinance is not exclusive to the LDS (Mormon) Church and has been practiced by other faiths in the past, but it seems that for one reason or another mainstream Christianity has abandoned it for the most part today.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  6. Scholar

    Whatever it takes to make those people happy, if they would be unhappy were they not to do it.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  7. ReligionIs4Dolts

    Mormons are necr0phi|i@cs!

    February 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  8. Khazarian

    Why does anyone care what a few nutcases decide to do? So what if the mor(m)ons decide to posthumously baptize Jews and other non-mor(m)ons? It's disrespectful, sure, but a) respect is not a human right and b) not as disrespectful as I'm being here. One can just hope that someone is making the wives and all their sister wives take contraceptives.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  9. Ted

    Baptism of the dead, which is - by definition - non-consensual, would be a joke if it were not so offensively presumptuous.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Jay

      If you read the article carefully, you will see that the author discussed that the Mormons who perform this practice do it as an opportunity for those being baptized to accept the ordinance (or not) to fulfill the Christian requirement of being baptized to enter into the kingdom of God (James 3:5). So they are not necessarily "forcing" the people to be baptized – just performing the ordinance for the person to accept or not.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:51 pm |

    If I can get a Mormon baptism, does that mean I can have multiple husbands? Whats good for the goose... hee hee hee

    February 17, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  11. Ember

    How dare they presume that because I chose not to accept their faith in life I will be more willing in death? Gods help the Mormon that tries to baptize me after death. There has got to be a way to stop this nonsense and tell these busybodies to worry about their own damn souls.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Manic Zorbian

      Well it's not like you're getting a postcard in the mail after a baptism is done for you (you're long dead anyway by the time someone even considers doing a baptism for a deceased relation)) saying, "Congratulations, you have a ticket to heaven!". It is just a way for LDS members to honor former generations within their families by giving the deceased the option of proxy baptism, baptism being one of the requirements of salvation in Christ according to Christian teachings.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  12. AngelaCA

    what was the reason that Jesus got baptazied at the age of 30? well it was knowledge that led him do that. we do baptize kids nowadays without giving them the chance to get any knowledge about why they are getting baptized. realigion is free will and understanding it. if you force me to become christian then what are we doing? where is the free will?

    February 17, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  13. Wilma Wonka

    Why do Mormons Baptize Dead Non-Mormons? Arrogance.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  14. Dan

    Why the heck do people care? It's not like they are digging up the bodies of the dead. Who cares what Mormons do in their own temples. Good grief.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Jay

      If one were to baptize me into their faith (me being alive or dead) as an option to accept that baptism if I so decide, then so be it. That`s like someone submitting my resume to a company that decides to hire me. Ultimately, it`s my choice to take the job or not regardless of who submitted my resume.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  15. Brian

    I am an atheist. I will baptize Romney as an atheist. Then he will be saved by the redeeming power of atheism.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  16. EJB

    Has anyone asked the dead people what they think?

    February 17, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Jay

      Someone crack out the weegie board!

      February 17, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  17. Dawn

    I kind of like the fact that I can live whatever life I want here on earth and as long is I make someone's list, I'm saved! I guess I can quit going to church and pick up a life of general debauchery now!

    February 17, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Jay

      It is important to note that the Mormons do not believe that salvation comes by simply being baptized. In their belief (as well as many other Christians), baptism is something required to enter the road to salvation. Mormons believe that by performing this ordinance, they are unlocking a door for the person being baptized by proxy. The person must still chose to open that door and walk down the corridor on the other side. The person must still live the other principles and ordinances of the gospel.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  18. Nate

    I am for it. Heck, if the Muslims or Catholics turned out to be the right one, I would love it if I was on the guest list.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  19. bob

    What an immense load of absolute twaddle and a genuinely insulting practice to those of other religions and beliefs, who do these biscuits think they are? Old Joe Smith was a looney, albeit a successful one. But there is hope... I hereby, un-baptize all of those baptized by proxy by mormons! Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

    February 17, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Ember

      I think I love you, will you marry me?

      February 17, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  20. SunnyInSLC

    Baptism isn't the only ordinance Mormons do "for" others. They also perform temple marriages by proxy to seal a man and a woman "for time and all eternity" so they can live as husband and wife in the afterlife.

    But the unique thing about baptisms for the dead is that it's a big part of Mormon prophecy that nobody talks about: the church believes that ALL people who have ever lived need to have gone through the baptismal process before Christ will come back to earth. So even though they say they will stop doing baptisms by proxy, they have to continue to fulfill the church work they're obligated to do.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Amazed

      What utter nonsense! Where do you people get your information from? Or, I should say misinformation. If you want your opinions based upon truth, go to the source . . . lds.org.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • SunnyInSLC

      What exactly is nonsense? I was raised Mormon and know the doctrine exceptionally well; perhaps you need to get a lesson on everything Mormons believe needs to happen for the second coming to occur.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.